Presidential advisers, both Democratic and Republican, long ago discovered ways to magnify presidential power at the cost of legal principles and the system of checks and balances. This essay briefly considers the limits to executive branch capacity to provide reliable legal and constitutional analysis in times of emergency, including covert military operations. It highlights the special risks government faces when the circle of presidential advisers narrows because of highly classified operations and there is less opportunity for senior officials, including attorneys, to pass judgment on pending initiatives.
Leon Panetta appeared on PBS Newshour not long after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time, and during the course of the interview he took up the question of the CIA’s role in the attack. It had been “a ‘title 50’ operation,” he explained, invoking the section of the U.S. Code that authorizes the activities of the CIA. As a result, Panetta added, he had exercised overall “command.”
This surely confused at least some observers. The mission had been executed by U.S. Navy SEALs from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) after all, and both operational and tactical command seemed to have resided at all times with JSOC personnel. But for those who had been following the evolution of the CIA and JSOC during the post-9/11 period, Panetta’s account would not have been surprising. The bin Laden raid was, from this perspective, merely the latest example of an ongoing process of convergence among military and intelligence activities, institutions, and